House Gate?

11 10 2008

Remember back to the first week in September, when it seemed like every day there was a new “gate”?  Actually, believe it or not, “Troopergate” used to be known as “Palingate” in Alaska because we naively believed there was only one.  Oh, how innocent we were.

Since that long ago time, our naivete has fallen away, and “gates” have been springing up like mushrooms all over Alaska:  Troopergate, babygate, bookgate, pastorgate…the list seemed endless.  Add to that a whole host of more recent and harder to say “gates” – Leaving-your-town-in-debt-gate, collecting-per-diem-while-living-at-home-gate, charging-victims-for-rape-kits-gate, trying-to-rid-the-world-of-wolves-and-polar-bears-gate, and we’ve been busy people.  We’ve been focusing on John McCain’s I-didn’t-vet-my-running-mate-so-I’m-going-te-let-everyone-else-do-it-gate.

But now, a brand new “gate” surfaces.  I present “House Gate”.  There will be more digging on this one in the days to come, but here’s what we know now. 

Six months before Palin stepped down as mayor in October 2002, the city awarded nearly a half-million-dollar contract to design the biggest project in Wasilla history to Kumin Associates. Blase Burkhart was the Kumin architect on the job—the son of Roy Burkhart, who is frequently described as a “mentor” of Palin and was head of the local Republican Party (his wife, June, who also advised Palin, is the national committeewoman). Asked if the contract was a favor, Roy Burkhart, who contributed to her campaign in the same time frame that his son got the contract, said: “I really don’t know.” Palin then named Blase Burkhart to a seven-member builder-selection committee that picked Howdie Inc., a mostly residential contractor owned at the time by Howard Nugent. Formally awarded the contract a couple of weeks after Palin left office, Nugent has donated $4,000 to Palin campaigns. Two competitors protested the process that led to Nugent’s contract. Burkhart and Nugent had done at least one project together before the complex—and have done several since.

A list of subcontractors on the job, obtained by the Voice, includes many with Palin ties. One was Spenard Builders Supply, the state’s leading supplier of wood, floor, roof, and other “pre-engineered components.” In addition to being a sponsor of Todd Palin’s snow-machine team that has earned tens of thousands for the Palin family, Spenard hired Sarah Palin to do a statewide television commercial in 2004. When the Palins began building a new family home off Lake Lucille in 2002—at the same time that Palin was running for lieutenant governor and in her final months as mayor—Spenard supplied the materials, according to Antoine Bricks, who works in its Wasilla office. Spenard actually filed a notice “of its right to assert a lien” on the deed for the Palin property after contracting for labor and materials for the site. Spenard’s name has popped up in the trial of Senator Stevens—it worked on the house that is at the center of the VECO scandal as well.

Todd Palin told Fox News that he built the two-story, 3,450-square-foot, four-bedroom, four-bath, wood house himself, with the help of contractors he described as “buddies.” As mayor, Sarah Palin blocked an effort to require the filing of building permits in the wide-open city, and there is no public record of who the “buddies” were. The house was built very near the complex, on a site whose city purchase led to years of unsuccessful litigation and, now, $1.3 million in additional costs, with a law firm that’s also donated to Palin collecting costly fees from the city.

Dorwin and Joanne Smith, the principals of complex subcontractor DJ Excavation & Development, have donated $7,100 to Palin and her allied candidate Charlie Fannon (Joanne is a Palin appointee on the state Board of Nursing). Sheldon Ewing, who owns another complex subcontractor, Weld Air, has donated $1,300, and PN&D, an engineering firm on the complex, has contributed $699.

Ewing was one of the few sports-complex contractors, aside from Spenard, willing to address the question of whether he worked on the house as well, but he had little to say: “I doubt that it occurred, but if it did indirectly, how would I know anyhow?” The odd timing of Palin’s house construction—it was completed two months before she left City Hall and while she and Todd Palin were campaigning statewide for the first time—raises questions, especially considering its synergy with the complex.

So Todd Palin says he built his lakeside home with the help of some “buddies” who were also building contractors.   First of all, this alone isn’t as unusual as it might sound to those in the Lower 48.  I personally know at least 4 people who have build houses with the assistance of “buddies” who were contractors.  Alaska is a very do-it-yourself kind of state.  Just as it isn’t really that unusual to be a pilot and own a small plane, or a snowmachine,  or to go moose hunting.  However, that said, we’re talking about the Palins.

Were this something that had been brought up as a stand-alone piece of evidence for a corruption investigation of a squeaky clean governor, I might never have thought it worth digging into.  But usually, once you’ve established something is an onion, it doesn’t matter how many layers you peel away, it’s still an onion.  And once you’ve established that someone abuses a position of power for self-gain (which we just did when the Branchflower Troopergate report was released), you can pretty well imagine that no matter how many layers you peel away, you’re likely to find more of the same.

Just as my first reaction with Palin’s and Ted Stevens’ “connection” to Spenard Builders Supply was to dare the Village Voice to find anyone who built a house in Alaska who DIDN”T have a connection with Spenard Builders Supply, we should not dismiss it too hastily.  Patterns are patterns, and onions are onions.  Nothing in Alaska stays hidden for long these days.

Todd Palin’s interview on Fox. He talks about building the house at minute 2:00.